When it came to my education concerning the histories of and scholarly approaches to African American poetry, my professor at Tougaloo College, Jerry W. Ward, Jr. was the crucial connector.
During the fall of 1996, my sophomore year, I began taking classes with Ward, and he and I began a wide-ranging conversation about literature, politics, novelist Richard Wright, ideas, and just about everything under the sun. The conversation persists to this day. Interestingly, while I was at Tougaloo, Ward never taught a course focused solely on poetry.
Many of my early lessons from Ward concerning the study of poetry came during out-of-class time. First, he suggested that I look into this poet and that poet and all these poets. Then, he directed me to Lance Jeffers, whose papers were housed in our college's archives. Some of my earliest memories of studying black poetry involved spending hours in Tougaloo's library and archive.
In retrospect, my poetry worlds during undergrad represented a strange sense of double consciousness: on the one hand, I organized "poetry cyphas" and published student anthologies on campus; on the other hand, I spent considerable time looking over primary and older documents in the archive and also having lengthy conversations with Ward about what I was exploring.
He hipped me to Negro Digest / Black World. He introduced me to the Black Arts Movement, to Black Fire (1968) and Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973). In fact, I have a distinct memory of this one day when Ward and I were in his office discussing rap, and he noted that there are other raps to consider aside from what we were hearing on our radios.
He reached on his shelf for Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry. He flipped through the pages, stopped at the place he was looking for, and preceded to read aloud "Rap's Poem" by H. Rap Brown. For me, it was a good introduction to rap before rap.
Among several scholarly sources that Ward introduced me to during my last years at Tougaloo, Drumvoices by Eugene B. Redmond and Black Chant by Aldon Nielsen really stuck with me. Those two books opened up whole worlds to me. Redmond's and Nielsen's writing revealed that they too had been to the same planets populated by black poets that Ward had visited.
A few years ago, I was reading some reports about citizens' lack of participation in humanities projects as I prepared to take on my role as the director of Black Studies @ SIUE. There seemed to be some agreement among at least a number of the reports that a positive "gateway experience" was essential for ensuring that folks would go on to have deeply involved and fulfilling interactions in humanities activities. Meet people who routinely have yearly memberships at museums or for the city's symphony, go the reports, and chances are those people have had positive gateway experiences early on.
A "gateway" or introduction experience helps a person enter a field or discourse and appreciate what it has to offer. Early positive gateway experiences can set people up to seek out the field's practitioners and find fulfillment in thinking about and engaging what they produce. Looking back, Ward was a significant guide for my introduction into worlds of African American poetry; he was responsible for my positive gateway experience.
To be fair, Ward was not the only positive force. I had some gateway experiences prior to arriving at Tougaloo that led me to believe that college professors, and especially literature professors, could become important forces in my life. In other words, I was prepped to look for a Dr. Ward before I even knew a Dr. Ward actually existed.
So, I suppose, one set of gateway experiences leads to others. At Tougaloo, Ward was the guide for my explorations of the worlds of Richard Wright, the academic and literature profession in general, and of course African American poetry.
C. Liegh McInnis's 1990s Groundwork in Mississippi
The Word Heard Round the World: Jessica Care Moore at the Apollo during the 1990s
Some Volumes of Poetry Published During the 1990s
Books of Collected Works by African American Poets from the 1990s
Notable African American Anthologies Feat. Poetry from the 1990s
African American Poetry During the 1990s: Some notable occurrences
Thank you for serving as a gateway guide yourself with this powerful essay. I'll be using and referring to it in my own teaching.
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